Study suggests higher contaminants in B.C. homes near fracking wells but more research is needed

People living near fracking sites in B.C. are lacking information about contamination they need to make ‘informed decisions,’ lead author Élyse Caron-Beaudoin says

A scientist who published a new study about air and water pollution levels affecting homes near fracking sites in northeastern British Columbia, Treaty 8 territory, says her research is shining a light on how little the provincial and federal governments know about the human health impacts of industrial development in the region.

The findings, which are disputed by a provincial regulator, found higher levels of air and water contaminants in the indoor air and tap water in the homes of pregnant women in the region when compared to the general Canadian population. It also found the pollution was disproportionately affecting the homes of Indigenous participants.

While the study, published on Sept. 22 in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment, did not determine whether the pollution was caused by the wells, lead author Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, an assistant professor in environmental health at the University of Toronto Scarborough, suggests this is what government officials need to investigate.

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Little data on indoor air pollution in homes near oil and gas development exists, she said.

“Regardless of whether the results are worrisome or not, the key message is that not much is being done to assess exposure to contaminants,” she said. 

“We can’t even start thinking about answering the question of whether this industry is potentially impacting human health because we don’t have all the necessary information.”

A few samples exceeded air and water quality guidelines, but most did not. More research is needed into the effects of long-term low exposure, Caron-Beaudoin said in an interview. 

Canada does not have guidelines for most of the contaminants they investigated, she added.

This echoes the findings of a previous provincial study.

Shale Gas Plays Northeast B.C. Map The Narwhal
Shale gas plays in northeastern B.C., Treaty 8 territory. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

In 2019, a provincial government-commissioned scientific review of fracking found “the very rapid development of shale gas in [northeastern B.C.] has made it difficult to assure that risks are being adequately managed at every step.” 

The review panel wrote it “could not quantify risk because there are too few data to assess risk.”

In an emailed statement to The Narwhal, the BC Oil and Gas Commission (the provincial regulator) said “we support continuous learning and initiatives that will enhance our understanding of water and air quality” but also called the study flawed.

Caron-Beaudoin and her team have been in touch with the commission since the publication of the study, as well as the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation.

So what exactly did the study find, what does the commission find inaccurate and what questions remain?

Some contaminants higher in Indigenous homes

The researchers focused on 85 pregnant women, testing hair, nails and urine, as well as indoor air and tap water. They found higher contaminant levels in homes near intensive natural gas extraction when compared to the general Canadian population. The research found some of the highest levels of contaminants among the Indigenous pregnant women who participated in the study.

The study measured the differing levels of volatile organic compounds in participants’ homes. These compounds are formed from combustion, including in fireplaces or automobiles, and are also present in gasoline. Everyone is exposed to these compounds to some degree but the new research found higher levels of these contaminants in homes near the fracking activity.

Roland Willson, Chief of West Moberly First Nations.
West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson said the study reflects longstanding concerns of Treaty 8 First Nations. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

Indigenous homes were not closer to the wells and they did not have more forms of combustion (like fireplaces or smokers) than non-Indigenous homes. The study did not review what might be causing this discrepancy.

Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations said the findings are troubling, but reflect longstanding concerns raised by Treaty 8 First Nations. The Treaty 8 Tribal Association is a co-author of the study.

“It shows we weren’t just saying stuff. We know now that there is an issue,” Willson said. 

“If this is an issue for First Nations, then what’s going to be the solution? Do we have to stay away from those places? They’re everywhere.”

BC Oil and Gas Commission says study has ‘inaccurate information’

The BC Oil and Gas Commission told The Narwhal the study includes “some inaccurate information.”

For example, the commission said the study falsely reported on the number of wells in the province, though Caron-Beaudoin responded that they used data from the commission’s website.

“There’s some ongoing issues with how user-friendly the [oil and gas commision] data is,” she said.

The commission also noted that some compounds measured in the study such as chloroform and other trihalomethanes are not added to fracking fluids, however, it was not immediately clear why the regulator raised this point since these compounds are commonly known to be byproducts of oil and gas production.

The commission suggested the researchers should have collected outdoor air samples for comparison and were attributing concentrations of volatile organic compounds to outdoor air sources. Caron-Beaudoin responded that they were not attributing all indoor volatile organic compounds to outdoor sources, and accounted for other indoor sources (such as smoking or storing paints and fuels) in their study.

The commission added that it is involved in peer-reviewed research to improve living conditions for people near oil and gas operations. 

“The commission continues to work with the provincial government to ensure the oil and gas industry is safe,” it said.

‘It’s information people living in these communities should have access to’

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique that involves blasting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into a well to break apart the rock formations and release previously inaccessible oil and natural gas deposits. The process can induce earthquakes and results in large amounts of contaminated water that has to be stored in wells and ponds.

Caron-Beaudoin said the researchers take no stance on the fracking industry and that her concern is the fact there is little monitoring of indoor air quality in Canada, especially near industrial sites. 

“It’s information people living in these communities should have access to and then they can make informed decisions,” she said.

She said more research is needed into the health effects of fracking emissions. The study doesn’t look closely at how the compounds may impact health. 

Studies have found possible correlations between proximity to fracking sites and health risks. One study found a 50 per cent higher chance of preterm birth for women living within five kilometres of a gas flaring site in Texas.

“The strongest evidence of potential health impacts associated with natural gas operations is in pregnancy and fetal production. We’re talking about lower birth weight, increased risk of preterm birth, multiple congenital malformations and outcomes like this,” Caron-Beaudoin explained.

Other studies have suggested volatile organic compounds could cause cancer, birth defects, lung and nervous system diseases and eye, nose and throat irritation, but too little research has been done to establish a direct link between fracking air pollution and health effects, according to Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health.

Race, Indigeniety and class correlate with ‘heightened health risks’ from industry

Indigenous participants’ homes showed notably higher concentrations of chloroform in the air, as well as acetone and decanal, to a lesser degree. The researchers also found higher levels of trihalomethanes (compounds found in chlorinated water) in Indigenous participants’ tap water.

“We’re still a bit in the dark as to why we’re why we’re seeing those differences,” Caron-Beaudoin said. “We couldn’t pinpoint anything that stood out.” 

Chief Willson said the impact on tap water is especially concerning, and may indicate that fracking could be affecting aquifers. The provincial government commissioned a scientific review of fracking in B.C. that was published in 2019, and found there is “a general lack of information on groundwater” in northeastern B.C. and the impact fracking may have on groundwater. 

Flaring B.C. fracking LNG methane emissions
Flaring at a gas pad north of Dawson Creek, B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Caron-Beaudoin said the higher levels in air and tap water in Indigenous homes could possibly be due to a difference in housing characteristics. The fact Indigenous people spend more time on the land could also contribute to higher levels in the body. But the fact Indigenous people appear to be more affected is not unusual — it’s part of a pattern.

Several studies have shown that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of climate change and industry, a result of systemic racism that is referred to as environmental racism.

“Race, Indigeneity and class have been shown to be correlated with a community facing heightened health risks from industrial activities and having less access to credible information about the risks,” the study reads.

“We’re supposed to be enjoying our culture and traditions out on the land, and here we are exposing ourselves to these contaminants,” Chief Willson said. 

“Our people shouldn’t be sacrificed to this. We shouldn’t suffer this.”

Willson said he has heard around town that industry is doing its own research into volatile organic compounds evaporating from wastewater ponds. As water evaporates from the ponds, greenhouse gases, volatile organic compounds and toxic air contaminants can be emitted. 

If research is being done into air and water contamination by the Oil and Gas Commision and by industry, Willson thinks First Nations and nearby communities are entitled to hear about the results.

“Does the government and industry know about this?” he wondered. “I worry they know there’s an issue and are trying to quietly fix it.”

‘This is the sort of data we need’

Amanda Giang, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in the institute for resources, environment and sustainability and the department of mechanical engineering, said she was excited to see this research. She said there are few studies that measure air and water quality near extractive sites, and especially few that look at the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous homes.

“This is the sort of data we need to better understand where there are health-related disparities,” she said. 

Giang’s research focuses on air pollution and environmental justice. She published a study last year that found marginalized communities are exposed to higher cumulative air pollution in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. In Vancouver, Indigenous people are most at risk; in Montreal and Toronto, it’s immigrants and low-income residents, according to the study.

Amanda Giang, with the University of British Columbia, said there are few studies that measure air and water quality near extractive sites, particularly taking into account the differing impacts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Another study out of the University of British Columbia found long-term exposure to air pollution from fine particulate matter contributes to 4 million deaths per year worldwide.

While Giang agrees more research is needed into why Indigenous homes may be experiencing higher contamination than non-Indigenous homes in industrial areas, she said enough studies have been done demonstrating environmental racism that action can be taken.

Installing more monitoring, strengthening regulations and addressing environmental justice in law are all actions that can be taken now, she explained.

“We don’t need to wait,” she said. 

Including communities in research and data is also key, she added, pointing out how the Treaty 8 Tribal Association is a co-author of the study.

People’s lived experiences and measurement tools together can create data that the community then has access to, she said.

“This is a really powerful example of how a community can act as a research co-designer and help shape the questions being asked.”

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